War would have been different if we never had to see pictures from it. Those are the images that make the international public deliberate on its sanity. An image can be so powerful as it tends to be printed in our memories, and touches our emotions more than other media; it is an eternal proof, whether we choose to, or not. Today, our awareness of the recent hostilities had a superior impact on the world, as the world media took a humanitarian oath at delivering the reality through images and pictures. The image has given us a complete portrait of the battlefield, the bad guys, the innocent ones, and the confrontation. But we never get to see the person behind the lens, the eye witness to the real war; the man who’s job is to provide history with evidence. I have met with Laith Mushtaq, an Iraqi war cameraman who works for Al-Jazeera. Being tormented between their contradicting human emotions and their obligation to represent the truth, I was only wondering how a man comes to the realization that he wants to be a war cameraman. First, I asked him: how did you choose to become a war cameraman and why? Tell me the story from the beginning:
– Being born and raised in a military environment as most of my uncles and cousins were serving as officers and militants in the Iraqi’s army. So I was hardened to the strict military discipline that environment demanded. My enrollment in the military service was in 1990, where I was drafted to join the battle lines in Kuwait soon after. Subsequent to that, I was ordered to be sent to the southern part of Iraq, where a civil war has broken out. Muddled in confusion, certainly I didn’t sign in the army to fight civilians. So I had no choice but to hide under the covers, as you were automatically condemned with treason, and probably put to death if caught. A year later, an official pardon was granted in favor of my family’s status in the military. As join back the armed forces, my hands never got the habit to hold a gun again. So my uncle offered me a post in the military media group, and that was more attractive to me. And here I was, for the first time I’m holding a camera. Of course back then the camera was too big and too heavy. I took few training courses of how to handle the camera at war. To be a good war cameraman you have to be 50% solder and 50% cameraman. And because I was a solder I had an advantage. I worked in the military until 1996. From that year until 2003 I was doing free lance and did many other jobs. What ever came in my way I took it, those days were difficult because of the siege. During this time, I was reading a lot trying to educate myself as much as I can. I would sit with old scholars and write down what ever their mouths spoke. This is the time where I started building myself and discovering who I am. I believe that what we learn out of our indoctrinating school system is the thing that creates who we are.
He paused for a while, took a deep breath with his eyes focused on the floor. I knew from the look in his eyes he was remembering a painful memory, so I kept quiet and let him take his time. Then he continued:
– Nine days before the Baghdad falls I was speaking to my sister, Tayba on the phone. She was alone at home and feeling very afraid that night. I was in the other house of the family; we had two houses because my father had two wives. So, I was trying to calm her down and told her that I would come over soon. Thirty minutes later she prepared dinner and sat on the dining table alone, in few seconds she was killed by a missile that fell directly behind her. Then, as I was getting ready to see her, I heard someone knocking the door. It was my cousin telling me that Tayba was killed. I acted fast and said lets go get the body. He stopped me and said “what body, all is left of her is her head”. And he pointed at a bag he was holding. It was so difficult; I loved Tayba more than anything. She was only twenty years old; she was studying biology. God bless her soul. After I berried her, I thought I should go to the charity place where I used to work. There was nothing left. There was shooting everywhere; everyone was fighting, all the people were on the streets fighting. Guns became like toys. In the middle of the mess, I saw one of my friends near the charity place and he told me that Aljazeera is looking for a cameraman and I should apply. I didn’t like the idea at first I thought it was crazy. Later I changed my mind and so I went to Aljazeera’s office and they welcomed me. I had training for a week but I felt intimidated because everyone around me knew what they were doing and how. So first, I started imitating those around me to do the job right but that was not enough. Then I started playing archive tapes and studying the Aljazeera technique to know what they are looking for exactly. I had to develop my own style and I knew at the same time that I had an advantage; I was a solder which means that I have quick reflexes, don’t get emotional and have the guts to go into danger. I also had another advantage because of my fair skin and overall look. The American’s often thought I was a foreigner and so they allow me to have some exclusive footage because Arabic reporters were not allowed to shoot certain things. And so I started having more and more exclusives and the more I worked the more I felt that Aljazeera was more than a place I work for. I felt that I had to prove myself and I felt that this is what I wanted to do in life. I know now that I am a cameraman. And to answer your question why I became a cameraman; it is because I believe that the cameraman makes history. When you look at photos of history, you don’t know the person behind the photo; but the photo becomes a proof, a document of history and that is what matters. The photos turns to actions, it is not a luxury anymore, it is a way of documenting history. And I am participating in making history. Imagine how it would be without photos. Imagine reading only reports about wars. It wouldn’t be the same. So photos became a political movement and this is why unfortunately they are targeting cameramen in wars these days. We can move to your next question now.
Well Laith, if there is one moment in your daring work that you never tend to forget, which one would it be?
– Actually there are two moments that have affected me profoundly. The first one was in Fallujah war in 2004. A missile hit a house and the whole family of 25 persons was killed; the only person who survived was the father. The corps were disfigured beyond imagination; you could hardly tell which parts are left and whether it was human or not. I remember seeing a little boy’s body; he was holding a toy in his hand and his head was cut in the middle to two pieces. The images were horrible, even the bravest man couldn’t handle it. What was even more painful to watch was the father. He was in denial and kept speaking to the corpses as if they were alive. He held one of the children and said “wake up my baby, wake up”. The father was not crying, he was simply having a normal conversation with them. We did not air this scene because it was too painful and disturbing. The second moment that I will never forget is the day my friend Rashid Wally died. We were in Karbala and there was heavy shooting. I wanted to stay on the roof to take exclusive footage and asked everyone to go down to hide. He refused and stayed with me. Suddenly our building was under attack and I ducked trying to avoid the bullets. I turned around and saw three bullets in his face. The first thing I did was to hold the camera and record his death. And this is one of the bad effects of war; you start to lose your emotions. I realized what happened later. But I knew that it was my duty to let the world know what happened to him. And this was the only thing I could have done at that time. To show the truth.
At the end of our conversation, is there a final word or a massage you want to send?
– I want to say that after the wars I have survived, my purpose is to show how awful war is. So people, stop the war, enough. We have lost so much already.
This conversation made me realize how lucky we are to be living in a place where there is no war. I also realized that a war cameraman is several men in one; he is a solder, a reporter, a daredevil, a hero and maybe a diplomat. As I was leaving from my meeting with Laith, I was looking at him and kept wondering about the horrible things he have been through, I am sure that what he told me is only one percent of what happened. I was left with even more questions in my mind. If he saw someone dying, would he help him or take a photo of him? I feel that a war cameraman is hypnotized by the spell of the camera which gives him this motive that we can never understand. But what comes first, the human or the picture? I wonder what he feels deep inside, who he really is. But I will leave this to your imagination.
P.S: Laith is a good friend of mine and i added his blog under links-friends